An Act of the Legislative Assembly, 29th August 1792

Now this is something very special: an Act of the Corps Législatif, signed by the great Georges Danton himself.[1] We have here a condemnation of the unfortunate Charles, Chevalier d'Abancourt, who had been appointed Minister for War on the 23rd June 1792 — just five weeks earlier.[2] The summer of 1792 was a time of existential crisis in France: the Prussian and Austrian armies were marching on her borders, and the French army seemed ill-prepared to meet them. Many feared that the country's enemies were internal, as well as external: it was widely believed that members of the nobility (perhaps including King Louis himself) were secretly aiding France's foes. Popular opinion swung even further against the King on the 1st August when the Duke of Brunswick, commanding the Prussian army, issued a declaration where he promised to "wreak an exemplary and forever memorable vengeance" on Paris if the King was harmed.

At a time when anti-monarchical feeling was running high, having a nobleman as the leader of the country's war effort was received poorly (it should of course be remembered that this was the dying days of the constitutional  monarchy, where the royalists were, in theory, still the dominant faction). D'Abancourt was frequently accused of being incompetent or, worse still, of secretly wanting France to lose the war so the Prussians could restore King Louis to his former powers. He made reassuring noises to the Assembly about the readiness of the French army, but the Assembly remained sceptical and dispatched a commission to take a look for themselves. The commission found the army in poor condition; ill-equipped and short of food and uniforms. Naturally there was outrage when the commission reported back to the Assembly on the 9th August, and there was much clamour for d'Abancourt's resignation. 

Parallel to this, d'Abancourt was involved in another controversy. Since 1791 the royal family had been living in Paris at the Tuileries palace, where they were protected by the 1,000-strong Gardes Suisses, elite Swiss mercenaries who owed their loyalty to the King rather than to France. The Assembly, not unreasonably, viewed the Swiss as a potentially hostile force, and ordered them to leave Paris for the front lines (essentially just to put them beyond the reach of the King — one assumes they would have rapidly deserted to the Prussians in a combat situation). The order required d'Abancourt's approval as Minister for War, but he held off on signing it, expressing concerns that such a move would potentially be a breach of the contract under which the Swiss were supplied to the King. The order remained unsigned while d'Abancourt claimed to be taking advice on the matter. Naturally his political enemies took this for a lame excuse, and accused him of trying to kick the order into the long grass. At the same time, d'Abancourt ordered a detachment of 300 Swiss which was (for some reason) located at Mantes, a town about 30 miles from Paris, to march to Normandy rather than return to Paris. This gave his enemies yet more ammunition: he was accused of sending the Swiss to Normandy as part of a plot to smuggle the King there and get him out of the country to safety. In short, people felt his ultimate sympathies lay with the King rather than with France, at a time when the King's interests were rapidly diverging from those of his subjects.

Paris at this time was divided into 48 Sections whose governing bodies were, in short, generally more restless and radical than the Commune, the overall municipal administration of the city. By the start of August the Sections were demanding the immediate overthrow of the King, believing that he was intriguing with the Prussians, and when both the Assembly and the Commune failed to act the Sections took matters into their own hands. On the night of the 9th-10th August representatives from the Sections overthrew the Commune and declared their own Commune Insurrectionnelle. 

The 10th August played out confusingly: a large force turned out to assault the Tuileries, which was heavily defended by the Swiss Guard — they of course still being there because d'Abancourt hadn't signed the order removing them. In the event, however, Louis decided to voluntarily surrender himself in the hope of avoiding bloodshed. The royal family left the Tuileries and gave themselves up to the Assembly, which had been taken rather by surprise by the whole situation. Despite the King having evacuated the Tuileries, the revolutionaries decided to attack it anyway. The Swiss Guard refused to surrender and, after a robust defence, were overwhelmed and massacred. Virtually all the Swiss Guard were killed, as were hundreds of the attackers.[3]

D'Abancourt was immediately held responsible for the incident: after all, had he simply signed the order removing the Swiss, they would have been at the front lines rather than in Paris killing Frenchmen and women. He was arrested and stripped of his ministerial post on the 11th August, and sent off to jail in Orleans to await his trial. He was replaced as Minister of War by Joseph Servan, whose name we see on the document here.[4] On the 29th August this official indictment was published, ordering that d'Abancourt appear before the Haute Cour Nationale to answer for himself.[5]

Meanwhile the military situation continued to deteriorate: by mid-August the Prussians had captured Verdun, the last major fortress on the road to Paris. Paranoia over potential fifth-columnists lying in wait for an opportune moment to rise up reached an even greater intensity, and in the early days of September a great many political prisoners were massacred by angry mobs, lest they be freed and set loose on their compatriots by the victorious Prussians. A crowd of Parisians gathered outside the court, demanding that it surrender up its prisoners to them, so they could bring them back to Paris and administer their own justice to them there (the court seems to have been regarded as too slow and too legalistic to satisfy the populace's desire for swift retribution against the revolution's enemies). The court was eventually cowed into submission and it gave up the prisoners, d'Abancourt among them. On the 9th September the convoy passed through Versailles on its way to Paris, where it was set upon by another angry crowd, who massacred all the prisoners. D'Abancourt's head was apparently impaled on a railing outside the Versailles Chateau. And here ends the story, probably with nothing too close to a moral.

[1] I acquired this item out of my great affection for G. Danton but, having written up this page, it occurs to me that he doesn't actually feature in this story at all. My immediate instinct would be to paste in Carlyle's epitaph for him: "a gigantic mass, of valour, ostentation, fury, affection and wild revolutionary manhood... with all his dross he was a Man; fiery-real, from the great fire-bosom of Nature herself. He saved France from Brunswick; he walked straight his own wild road, whither it led him. He may live for some generations in the memory of men." Great Men are rather out of fashion these days, however, and we may wish to settle for JM Thompson's assessment of him: "not a great man, not a good man, certainly no hero; but a man with great, good, and heroic moments.

[2] The Sieur d'Abancourt has rather been forgotten by history, and very little material exists about him in English. Much of this page is taken from his French and German Wikipedia articles, and here I would emphasise that I can read neither language to any degree.

[3] Little consolation to all the murdered Swiss, of course, but about fifty years later they were commemorated by the famous Lion of Lucerne, a very poignant bit of statuary.

[4] As of the 11th August Servan was the Minister for War and Danton the Minister for Justice: the King's downfall led the royalists to abandon the Assembly and the various offices and posts of state were shuffled around a good deal.

[5] Not much seems to have been written about the Haute Cour in English either (I had initially confused it with the Revolutionary Tribunal, even). As far as I can see it was a single court, based in Orleans, which was set up in 1791 for the purpose of trying alleged violators of the Constitution. Persons could only be brought before it on the basis of a formal accusation by the Corps Législatif. Haiving been rendered fairly impotent in the face of the mob justice displayed in September it was shut down at the end of that month.


Dated the 29th August 1792, the fourth year of liberty.

Act of accusation against the Sieur Dabancourt, Minister for War, during the session of the 11th August.

ON the observation that a member of the Assembly, the Sieur Dabancourt, former Minister of War had, in contravention of the decrees and in contempt of the Constitution, delayed the departure of the Gardes-Suisses from the city of Paris, and this prevarication must be regarded as the greatest contribution to the misfortunes which took place on the 10th;

THE National Assembly has decreed, as of the 11th August, that an accusation should be levelled against the Sieur Dabancourt, Minister for War; as a result of this act, let him come before the Haute Cour Nationale to answer for his crime against the Constitution, and for his attempt to undermine the security of the State.

IN THE NAME OF THE NATION, the Provisional Executive Council commands and ordains all administrative bodies and tribunals, that they do hereby record these presents in their registers, read, publish and display them in their respective departments and jurisdictions, and carry them out as law. In witness whereof we have signed these presents, to which we have affixed the seal of the State. Given at Paris, the 31st day of August 1792, the fourth year of liberty. Signed SERVAN, Counter-signed DANTON, and sealed with the seal of the State.

This copy is certified as conforming with the original.